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Partnership with O’Connor Hospital Sheds Light on Ethical Dilemmas

Every family will someday face a difficult medical decision: what sort of care is appropriate for a relative nearing the end of her life,  for example.

medicalethics

Student interns see ethics in action at O'Connor Hospital

Hospital ethics committees offer help to patients and their families trying to sort through these issues.

At O’Connor Hospital, part of the Daughters of Charity Health System, some of that help comes from a partnership between the hospital and Santa Clara University. The Applied Ethics Center at O’Connor Hospital, a project of Santa Clara’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, was created in 1994. Today, it serves two main functions.

First, Santa Clara University experts provide direct support to the hospital’s ethics committee, helping the hospital wrestle with questions of patient care, professional ethics for providers, and organizational issues. If a family is having disagreements or simply needs help sorting out the options for care, the ethics committee can help. On the organizational side, ethics experts can help the hospital sort out questions of conflicts of interest or how to weigh cost and quality when making purchasing decisions.

Second, the hospital provides a place for interns from the University to learn about medical ethics. “O’Connor serves as the primary site for our health care ethics internship,” said Margaret R. McLean, associate director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and senior lecturer in religious studies at Santa Clara University.

The yearlong internship program, which this year has 16 students participating, has students shadowing health professionals. “They learn about everyday life in nursing or in medicine or in physical therapy,” McLean said. “We also have them try to think about and talk to people about the ethical issues that arise in the hospital context.”

This is a learning internship, not a working one. “Any of us can stand up there in front of a class for an hour and talk about medical ethics and engage students about difficult cases,” McLean said. “That’s fine, and we do that. But it’s a wholly different matter when you’re standing at the bedside, and you know this patient now because you’ve been in the ICU for a week or two, and you know this patient’s family.”